It may surprise you to hear that Shetland has not always been covered in peatlands. The first people who came here arrived around 5000 years ago, and they would have found the landscape covered in grasslands and scrub woodland, developed mostly through the actions of vast bird flocks since the end of the ice age, perhaps 7000 years before their arrival.
Then human activity started, and as always, it changed the natural environment. It was previously thought that the climate changed and got colder, which was why peat started to grow in Shetland around 3000 years ago. However, it is now considered that the complete destruction of woodland in the islands is a more likely cause. There would have been a great deal of Downy Birch, Hazel, Willow, and Alder trees growing in woodlands and groves all over the island. Their fate was to be used for building, for burning, and to be nibbled by sheep, until they were all gone. That is why Shetland is so rich in Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age buildings and remains. If you have no wood, you must build in stone, and stone remains.
Trees consume a great deal of water, and when you take away the trees, the soil gets wetter and colder. These are ideal conditions for peat to grow, resulting in the population being left very worried as their land grew less fertile. This is how we got to where we are today, with vast quantities of peat, in layers of varying depth, over a considerable area of Shetland. We now have a growing understanding of the importance of peatlands for carbon storage and how much carbon dioxide is emitted by degraded peatlands. The stark truth is that 70% of peatland in Shetland is damaged (Scottish Natural Heritage figure). As we become aware of the urgency of the threat of climate change caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we understand that peat in quantity is terribly important, and that work on its restoration is urgent and necessary.
Peat is one of the world’s great carbon stores, holding vast quantities of carbon therefore we must work towards preventing erosion, with a view to increasing the carbon that can be stored within our peat, thus boosting Shetland’s contribution to fighting climate change. That’s where peatland repair and enhancement come in. There are huge areas of peat in Shetland under grave threat due to our past activity. We drained, and overgrazed, which led to carbon dioxide release as peat was exposed and dried out and erosion took place.
Until quite recently, not enough people properly understood the damage being caused, but the good news is that the erosion can be stopped and reversed. Peatlands can be restored to the point where, not only can the damage be repaired, but erosion can be stopped, and peat growth, slowly at 1 millimetre a year, can start again. There is now strong and growing support from the Scottish Government for this, therefore we have founded Shetland Peatland Restoration to enable us to work with the Scottish Government and other public bodies to undertake the work required to restore our peatlands, thus benefitting the environment and supporting the reduction of carbon emissions.